Tavče gravče is arguably the most famous Macedonian dish. Its reputation follows me everywhere I go in the Balkans, and everyone thinks they’re being funny when they ask me if I like, as they often mispronounce it, tavče na gravče, or gravče na tavče, or gravčeto na tavčeto. Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, for the last time, it’s tavče gravče!
There is something extremely comforting about the spicy and earthy taste of properly cooked tavče gravče. It’s more than a meal, it’s a taste of home, and comfort. If the book “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul” ever came to Macedonia, it would probably be translated “Tavče Gravče for the Macedonian Soul”.
It’s the perfect fall/winter cold weather meal, even if you make it year round (which we do). And it’s very traditional. So, get your beans ready, and lets get to it!
2 cups white beans (we use the local Macedonian kind, but you can also use cannellini or Great Northern beans)
1 dried hot chili pepper
Sunflower oil, or use any oil with a high smoking point, like peanut.
1 tbs paprika (you can use some Spanish pimenton, if you have it.)
1 tsp ground cumin or 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped up
A few sprigs of mint, fresh or dried
Handful of sun-dried tomatoes
Salt to taste
(Optional: ham, bacon, sausage, leeks, čubrica, allspice, fenugreek, cayenne pepper, anise, ground coriander, anything you like)
Tavče gravče is easily modified, and you can make it your own. In fact, the cumin doesn’t traditionally belong in there, but it’s too good with it to not include. Macedonians, remember, it’s cumin, not caraway, кимион, and not ким. It’s supposed to be a simple and honest recipe. I’ve made batches with an excess of 5 different spices, and every single time I make it, I do something different. Once you learn the basic principles, you can make your own versions.
Wash the beans, and pick out any debris. Put the beans in a large pot, and fill it with water, covering the beans about 3-4 centimeters. Chop up the onions and put them in the pot. Put the pepper in, and optionally, a bay leaf. Cook them at medium high heat until they’re creamy and soft, about 2 hours or so. Stir them periodically and add water as it evaporates. The consistency needs to be like a stew.
Now we need to make the zaprška. This is a cooking principle used in many world cuisines, like Indian. Basically, you want to heat up some oil, and then fry the spices in it. On high heat, get the oil very hot, and then simply add the mint, garlic, paprika and cumin, and any other spices that you want. Stir them around until it’s all fragrant, just about a minute or so, and then stir the oil into the beans. The amount of oil you use is a bit nebulous. I’ve never actually measured it out. I add enough so that the oil goes all the way to the edge of the pan. When you stir the beans up, they’re supposed to glisten with the oil. That’s how you tell. By the glistening.
Halve and add the sun-dried tomatoes to the mix. Now you can add any other meats or vegetables (leeks are great in here).
Put the beans in a clay pot, tagine, or a Dutch oven or whatever you have. Bake them at 200 degrees C, or 400 F, for about 30 minutes, or until you reach a nice, thick consistency. Remember, when the beans cool, they will be thicker.
Serve with pita bread, or dense, crusty sourdough.